'A.I.': Masterpiece Or Muddle?

Haley Joel Osment, left, and Jude Law "A.I. Artificial Intelligence."
What happens when you take the cold, clinical vision of one of cinema's great directors and mix it with the warm humanism of another major director? Or, to put it another way, what if cute little E.T. calls home and HAL the evil computer answers?

The result is you get Steven Spielberg's new movie "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" which opens on Friday possibly followed by one of film criticism's biggest brouhaha's in years.

Depending on which critic you read or listen to in it the next few days, you will either love or hate the movie. Members of one preview audience walked out of a screening on the Warners Brothers lot in a dazed, "What gives?" state only to read a few days later in Daily Variety that they had witnessed a masterwork.

Based on a project begun and sketched out in detail by Spielberg's good friend and sometime mentor, the late Stanley Kubrick, the film will either be hailed for blending the best of both men — Kubrick's "cool," Spielberg's sentiment — or denounced as a tepid stew combining the worst of both.

Spielberg and Kubrick had worked together on the idea in the early 1990s and Kubrick had suggested that Spielberg direct it. After Kubrick died in 1999, his family asked Spielberg to finish the project, which he did, even writing the script himself.

A science fiction version of the Pinocchio fairy tale, "A.I." tells the story of an artificial boy — a robot that is built with the ability to feel and need love.

As played by Haley Joel Osment, the boy robot never blinks or has a bodily function but pines away for a mother's love and to be "a real boy."

The films breaks neatly into three acts.

In the first, filmed in the brightly lit and eerily sinister manner of a Kubrick movie, the robot boy, David, is given to a couple whose real son has been cryogenically frozen because he is suffering from a deadly disease. David is a creepy substitute but as he and the mother of the family bond, the couple's human child is cured and returns to the family to seek jealous vengeance on the robot boy.

Soon the mother tearfully abandons her robot child in a New Jersey woods where he has to fend off marauding bands of humans out to destroy mechanical life — the way the Nazis hunted down Jews in the Holocaust.

The second part of the film moves into scenes inspired by Kubrick's "Clockwork Orange," Frances Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now" and Spielberg's "Schindler's List," not to mention some scenes straight out of the scarier moments of Walt Disney's "Pinocchio" with British actor Jude Law playing an X-rated version of Jiminy Cricket — Gigolo Joe, the robot that loves women.

Then in a third act, set in a New York whose skyscrapers have been engulfed by an ocean, David the robot boy confronts his destiny as a mechanical Pinocchio yearning to become real. Whole images drift into this section from Kubrick's masterpiece "2001" and Spielberg's "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."

Daily Varity's reviewer Todd McCarthy praised the movie, calling it "an unusually ambitious" film that hits on such themes as what it means to be human, the definition of family and the notion of creation.

"Viewers predisposed against highfalutin films that take themselves seriously no doubt will turn off and ask what happened to the old Spielberg," he wrote. "But those gagging on the glut of cinematic junk food should welcome this brilliantly made visionary work that's bursting with provocative ideas."

New Yorker critic David Denby was far less impressed, saying that "'A.I.' might have worked if it had been faster and lighter … But this is a ponderous, death-of-the-world fantasy which leaves us nothing but an Oedipal robot ..."

Other advance reviews are pretty much following that pattern, save for near-universal praise for star Osment, who made his name as the boy who saw dead people in "The Sixth Sense."

Spielberg says he toyed with the idea of using a mechanical, digital actor to play David.

"A digital boy in amongst the cast of human beings photographed on 35 millimeter — we're years away from that technologically," he said. "So it was really time to cast an actor to play a machine, so Haley Joel Osment was really my first and last choice."

At 13, Osment already has a long list of films in his credits. Despite being famous and in demand the Oscar nominee is still a kid.

"I'm in school, just finished 7th grade. Pretty happy with the films I've been on. Yeah, everything is really cool," he told CBS News Correspondent Manuel Gallegus. Of the movie, Osment said, "the sets were so bizarre and cool."

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